Alabama applies familiar recruiting flair on a national scale
Alabama flourishes on signing day, again, but with a new appeal to top prospects outside of its base in the Deep South.
Robert Foster is rated as the No. 1 prospect in Pennsylvania and the No. 1 wide receiver nationally. (247)
Despite the best efforts of the recruiting-industrial complex, the concept of a "recruiting national championship" is a silly one, as if recruiting was an end unto itself: Even in 2013, championships are won on the field, not on the Internet. But if such a crown did exist, it's hard to deny it would be under lock and key in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the direct line from the Crimson Tide's streak of mythical titles in February to the real thing is impossible to ignore. The latest crop to sign their immediate future over to Nick Saban on Wednesday, featuring six five-star signees and eight others ranked among 247Sports' top 100 overall, is no exception. So what else is new?
In terms of the talent level, nothing: Saban has been credited with delivering the most impressive signing class in the nation in roughly five of the last six years, regardless of turnover on his coaching staff or the increasing impenetrability of the depth chart. What's different this year is Alabama's appeal to top prospects outside of its base in the Deep South.
Not that the Tide don't still own Alabama. In fact, with the likes of tight end O.J. Howard, linebacker Reuben Foster, linemen Darius Paige, Dee Liner and Grant Hill and wide receiver ArDarius Stewart, they could make a strong case as one of the top classes in the nation this year on in-state signatures alone. Nor has Saban been invisible outside of the region, having previously signed a five-star lineman from Washington, D.C. (Cyrus Kouandjio) and Alabama's first Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram, from his old stomping grounds in Michigan. But no crop in the Saban era has been as remotely cosmopolitan as the class of 2013.
Consider that, of the 14 five-star prospects that Alabama signed in Saban's first six recruiting classes, only one of them (Kouandjio) grew up outside of the Southeast; eight of them hailed from Alabama. Of the dozen Saban recruits who have subsequently been drafted by the NFL, only Ingram and Kareem Jackson were recruited from outside of traditional SEC states, and Jackson grew up in Georgia before taking a brief detour through prep school in Virginia. Of the roughly 10 departing players likely to be drafted in April, the only one recruited from outside of the Deep South is defensive tackle Jesse Williams, a native Australian who was discovered at a junior college in Arizona.
For the 2013 class, on the other hand, Alabama left the Deep South to sign a five-star wide receiver from Pennsylvania (Robert Foster), a five-star linebacker from Virginia (Jonathan Allen), a five-star lineman from Texas (A'Shawn Robinson), a four-star quarterback from Utah (Cooper Bateman), a junior college lineman from Brooklyn, N.Y., (Leon Brown), a four-star safety from New Jersey (Anthony Averett) and a four-star cornerback from Texas (Maurice Smith), all of whom are legitimate blue chips, ranked among 247Sports' top 150 incoming prospects in the nation. Bama also went back to the Virginia prep school well for a native Tennessean, offensive lineman Brandon Hill, who is listed at an almost hard-to-believe 390 pounds. There's more potential in that group from outside of Alabama's traditional recruiting base than in Saban's first six classes combined, and then some.
True, other SEC heavyweights made waves outside of the South: Texas A&M and LSU signed six players apiece from outside of the base, and both Auburn and Florida went north to pluck five-star defenders from Indiana (Elijah Daniel) and Pennsylvania (Alex Anzalone), respectively; Auburn also cast a wide net for juco talent, inking five transfers from colleges in Kansas and California. The swaggering reputation of the league as a whole is having the self-reinforcing effect of expanding its footprint into new territory. But none of the Crimson Tide's rivals reached quite as far with quite as much success.
Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the national flavor didn't come at the expense of Bama's usual success at home. As noted, they cleaned up in Alabama, landing seven of 247's top nine prospects in the state. But from surrounding states in SEC country, they also lured some of the most sought-after talent in Arkansas (Altee Tenpenny), Florida (Derrick Henry), Georgia (Tyren Jones, Alvin Kamara) and Louisiana (Tim Williams, Raheem Falkins), most of which is bound for the offensive backfield. The only Southern state that Saban mania could not penetrate was Mississippi, where five-star targets Antonio Conner and Chris Jones elected to stay close to home at, respectively, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The big one that got away, of course, was the No. 1 prospect in the nation, Loganville, Ga., defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who spurned Alabama and everyone else to join his brother at Ole Miss. Later, there was Eddie Vanderdoes, a five-star defensive tackle from California who told Alabama "thanks, but no thanks" in favor of Notre Dame. Even Saban can't win them all. But with each passing year, and each new crop of undaunted blue chips, that just gives him one more level to aim for.
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